VENTURA, Calif. — Firefighters amassed along the coast and in the scenic town of Ojai near here Thursday to make a stand against flames that could be driven by another round of high winds.
The unpredictable blaze that has devastated parts of Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles and led to evacuation of tens of thousands grew even more erratic Wednesday as it jumped the freeway and headed straight to the ocean.
The fire posed the biggest threat among four active wildfires burning in southern California. In Los Angeles, light winds allowed firefighters to keep the upper hand in the Skirball fire that burned through some of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods.
In Ventura County, firefighters were not only on guard in Ojai, known for its weekend residences for celebrities and a summer classical music festival, but also along the coast south of the seaside town of Carpenteria.
Growing to 90,000 acres, or 140.6 square miles, by Wednesday evening, the Thomas fire sparked additional mandatory evacuations in neighborhoods from Santa Paula to La Conchita, as well as in Santa Barbara, where officials issued a mandatory evacuation for about 300 residents. Late Tuesday, the fast-burning blaze crossed Highway 101 at Solimar Beach, north of Ventura, and nearly doubled the number of residents under evacuation orders to 50,000.
“Every firefighting aircraft available in the country is being provided for California’s use as we speak,” said Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.
The fire that started Monday evening in Santa Paula changed and grew by the hour under shifting wind conditions. Firefighters have been unable to get a true handle on the blaze, with containment at 5%.
“When we have opportunities, when the winds have died down, we do direct firefighting on the fire line and try to get some containment,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen.
But that will depend solely on Santa Ana winds, which authorities anticipate to be extremely strong Thursday and to continue through Saturday. The weather is also expected to be bone-dry, with humidity in the single digits.
Pimlott said he fears winds could gain speeds up to 80 mph.
"There will be no ability to fight fires in this type of wind. This will be about evacuation and getting people out from in front of any fires that start in these types of conditions," Pimlott said.
Wildfires destroy homes in Southern California
The Cal Fire chief said residents should have an evacuation plan because the situation can change in a matter of minutes.
Conditions Thursday “are going to be extreme,” he said.
These are likely the strongest Santa Ana winds since 2007 — when, at one point, there were 17 active fires in California, said David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard, Calif.
“Back in 2007, we had four fires in effect at the same time in Ventura and Los Angeles counties,” Sweet said. “Our conditions now are comparable to what we saw then.”
The Thomas fire closed nearly every school and college in Ventura County, with many campuses expecting closures through the end of the week.
Michael Nix stood in the flatbed of his Dodge pickup off the Pacific Coast Highway taking pictures of streams of flames moving closer to Highway 101.
“I’m seeing a scary situation,” said Nix, who lives just outside of Ventura County in the Rincon area. He’s outside of the mandatory evacuation zone but is packed and ready to go.
He said the air, thick with smoke and ash, tasted like smoke. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Why?
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Living within the mandatory evacuation zone in La Conchita is community leader Mike Bell, who knew the flames were a mile away but wasn't ready to go.
“We intend to stay here until we actually think there’s a threat to town,” Bell said.
Earlier Wednesday, Bell hosed down the property from his roof. He said his car was loaded and ready to go.
Firefighters received air assistance from eight aircraft from the U.S. Navy and California National Guard. Also deployed were two aircraft, known as the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System, from the Channel Islands Air National Guard station.
Authorities have even reached across multiple state lines for help.
Teams from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington have either arrived or are on their way. The number of personnel fighting the blaze is nearly 2,000 and authorities expect that number to increase.
“These assets coming from our surrounding, neighboring states, which we are deeply appreciative of, will be immediately applied to the firefight,” said Mark Gilharducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services.
Although firefighters have only reached a 5% containment of the blaze, they have done a good job protecting homes, Lorenzen said. Teams are assessing the number of burned structures, which is estimated at 150, but that number is expected to increase. There are still about 12,000 structures threatened.
Power outages continued as officials tried to restore the transmission system affected by the fire. About 8,400 customers were without power because of the Thomas fire, and Southern California Edison officials did not know when service would be restored.
Paul Grigaux, of Edison, said the number of outages could fluctuate throughout the week as the fire continues to threaten transmission lines.
Contributing: Christian Martinez, Tom Kisken, Alexa D'Angelo, Cheri Carlson and Megan Diskin, Ventura County (Calif.) Star. Follow Wendy Leung on Twitter: @Leung__Wendy